From tennis pro to working at home

Do top female athletes risk the death of their sport by opting out?

Topics: Tennis, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

The status of women’s professional sports — especially tennis — is in peril because top female athletes are opting out of their successful careers in favor of pursuing domestic dreams (and thereby cheating themselves and the rest of womankind), according to a piece today in the New York Times. Hmm, sounds strangely familiar.

The Women’s Tennis Association is “the only women’s league where the money measures up to the fellas,” writes Selena Roberts. And with that money comes an irresistible “escape hatch” that leads straight to domestic heaven– where there are endless piles of dishes, dirty diapers and grass-stained clothing to be dealt with. (Heaven, indeed!)

“Top players on [the Women's Tennis Association Tour] can afford to be ladies of leisure as they parachute in and out of the schedule,” writes Roberts. But male players can afford it, too — so why hasn’t there been a mass male exodus from the courts? Roberts says it’s because “salary figures and contract numbers define many male pros. To them, wealth is a measure of their self-worth.” Some men do opt out, but “disillusionment on the women’s Tour is a flu bug passing from one star to the next,” she argues, and “tournaments and majors played without longtime rivals or a consistency of stardom or familiar faces puts women’s tennis at risk of vanishing through irrelevance.”

Kim Clijsters’ recent decision to retire from the sport at the age of 23 is the main focus of the Times piece. After earning $14.7 million throughout her career, Clijsters announced her retirement Sunday and wrote on her Web site: “Right now, it is time for a new life. Time for marrying. Children? Time for cooking and playing with the dogs.” What her decision reveals is “the same socially sanctioned element that ribbons through every Starbucks, where mommies with M.B.A.’s prefer to run play dates instead of boardroom meetings,” writes Roberts.

This may sound flippant, but professional sports can seriously ravage both the body (Clijsters fantasizes about the days when her back never locked up) and mind (tennis stars are subject to all sorts of nasty gossip), making the decision to leave after you’ve peaked professionally seem to simply suggest a stroke of sanity! Why is no one lamenting the fact that male tennis stars feel pressured to perform beyond their body’s breaking point?

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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